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A cabinet minister was among scores of Japanese parliamentarians to pay tribute at a controversial war shrine Friday, drawing a rebuke from Beijing which said the visit was a bid to "whitewash" history.
Yoshitaka Shindo, minister for internal affairs and communications, insisted he was paying homage at Yasukuni Shrine as an individual, and played down the potential for diplomatic fallout.
"I offered prayers in a private capacity," Shindo, who wore a morning suit, told reporters after making his offering of a branch from a sacred tree.
"It's not something that should provoke comments from anyone," he said. "I don't think this will develop into a diplomatic issue at all."
Shindo was contradicted hours later in Beijing, where Tokyo's envoy was called in to the foreign ministry.
"Vice Chinese Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin has summoned the Japanese ambassador to China for a solemn protest and a strong condemnation," ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.
The visit to the shrine "is a blatant attempt to whitewash Japanese militarism's history of aggression and to challenge the outcomes of the Second World War and the post-war international order", Hua added. "China is resolutely opposed to that."
Seoul's response was more muted, with a foreign ministry official bemoaning the shrine's role as one that "justifies the history of Japan's aggression".
"The government urges Japanese politicians to build trust with neighbouring countries through humble reflection and reconsideration of history," he said.
On Friday, about 160 members of parliament -- approximately 20 percent of the nation's lawmakers -- were at Yasukuni as part of the autumn festival, which runs until Sunday. A record 166 made the trip during April's spring festival.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday donated a symbolic gift to the shrine, in what was taken as a sign that he would not be there in person.
Yasukuni is the believed repository of the souls of about 2.5 million war dead.
The shrine is controversial because of the inclusion of 14 of the men held responsible for Japan's often-brutal behaviour as it invaded a swathe of Asia in the 1930s and 1940s.
In addition, the museum attached to the shrine peddles a largely unapologetic view of WWII that is not widely accepted, either at home or abroad.
China and South Korea, whose peoples suffered under Japan's militarist rule, say Yasukuni is a symbol of Tokyo's present-day unwillingness to come to terms with its past misdeeds.
However, Japanese conservatives say it is natural that they pay homage to people who lost their lives in the service of their country, and insist the shrine is no different from Arlington National Cemetery, where the United States honours its war dead.
Abe, who was also prime minister from 2006 to 2007, has stayed away from Yasukuni since he took office in December, although he visited the shrine last year when he was in opposition.
"This is an extremely complex issue, and a visit by a minister will make it more complicated," said Yasuko Kono, political professor at Hosei University in Tokyo.
"This is not only a Japanese problem but also a problem in China and South Korea where their governments have difficulty controlling growing nationalism," Kono said.
Tokyo's historical disputes with Beijing and Seoul are further complicated by territorial rows.
Japan and China are at loggerheads over islands in the East China Sea, whose seabed may contain resources, while Seoul and Tokyo disagree over the ownership of a sparsely populated pair of islets in the sea between the two countries.
Abe has had no formal meeting with the leader of either country since coming to power.